I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Rahsaan Roland Kirk: Much More Than a Gimmick

by Thomas Michalski
Aug. 8, 2012

In his time, Rahsaan Roland Kirk was often accused of being little more than a gimmick, which makes sense when you consider that, then as now, most music critics are lazy reactionaries (I’m allowed to say that beacuse I am myself a lazy, but not quite reactionary, music critic). Who is this strange guy playing three saxophones at once? What is that peculiar instrument he’s created? Who just decides to accent compositions with a nose flute?i Kirk must have seemed to many like a glorified one man bandii, a novelty act with pretensions of sophistication. This superficial view was sometimes advantageous to Kirk; as Geoffrey Himes of Jazz Times (hey, that rhymes! Oh shit, that rhymes too!) puts it, “He knew perfectly well how eccentric he appeared onstage and did little to tone it down, for he realized that his theatricality attracted attention in a competitive environment”iii. He often lamented that people refused to look past his quirks as a performer and focus on the music, always insisting that, while they may seem unorthodox to his critics, his style and instrumentation was nothing more than an honest attempt to recreate what he heard in his head, and in his dreams.

And dreams were clearly a very powerful force to Kirk. As the story goes, a teenage Ronald Kirk, of Columbus, Ohio, received a message in a dream leading him to make the slight change from “Ronald” to “Roland”. Another vision inspires him to add Rahsaan to his appellation. Yet a third shows him his future playing three horns at once, a feat which he soon mastered thanks to a pair of outdated Spanish army horns found in a junk shop and promptly customized to suit his own endsiv.

Kirk was humble when it came to taking credit for his most outlandish technique, the aforementioned battery of simultaneously-played horns. As he told Down Beat magazine, “There might be some guy in the woods somewhere who we never heard of who did it before me. I do know I’m the first to bring it to the public. I get more credit for it, but it’s too simple. It’s like the man who invented chewing gum. He was really into something. But it’s so simple nobody wants to say it’s something.” Using a difficult to master technique called circular breathing, Kirk was able to extend the notes ringing from his sax almost indefinitely, giving him even more freedom to mirror the sounds echoing through his mind.

Kirk, blind since the age of two due to a botched medical procedure, was sensitive to sound waves in a similarly intuitive way and particularly attuned to dreams. Conch shells, whistles, sirens, anything that emitted raw sound was fair game as musical elements; and not always in his hands either; as noted in this magazine beforev, he pioneered audience participation by handing out similar noisemakers to the crowd. The first video in this collection, in which Kirk jams with a variety of zoo animals, ably demonstrates this gleeful, inspiring disregard for traditional composition and his insistence on the musicality of everyday noise.

And yet, Kirk was not so absorbed in his musical experimentation as to ignore what was happening to the world around him, even if he couldn’t see it directly. He was an outspoken advocate for a variety of social issues, especially those that impacted the African-American population, and he often made his feelings known through caustic, outlandishly funny between-song banter. The most public demonstration came when, along with a large group of musicians and other instigators, he interrupted the taping of an episode of The Merv Griffin Show in order to draw attention to what he called the “whitewashing” of musical history: that oft-remarked upon fact that, while white artists who ripped off/were influenced by black American music are pushed to the forefront, the originators languish in obscurity -- the unappreciated masters of what he called “black classical music” vi.

But he was never a politician. Kirk could never be anything other than a musician. Purported to have an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz history, as well as of music in general, Kirk felt no differentiation between the styles and schools which pigeonholed other artists. Post-modern before there was any word for it, Kirk wove together hard-bop, swing, ragtime, blues, soul and pop (this collection even features a vigorous workout of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude”), so getting bogged down in taxonomy would seem to betray the whole spirit of the man’s work. Just watch, listen and prepare to be converted.

i http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nose_flute

ii http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hsydhsP4Jqw

iii “Rahsaan Roland Kirk: The Cult of Kirk,” Geoffrey Himes, Jazz Times, June 2008 http://bit.ly/nqnYJq

iv The Rahsaan Roland Kirk Website, http://www.alfanet.hu/kirk/index2.html

v http://www.networkawesome.com/mag/article/sound-rahsaan-roland-kirk-and-john-cage/

vi Stopping the Whitewash: Rahsaan Roland Kirk on TV, The New York Daily News, David Hinckley http://nydn.us/pBgRo3

Thomas Michalski is a writer and radio host from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. You can keep up with his comings and goings over at http://www.voodooinspector.com/